When a computer-animated feature doesn't have the Pixar label attached to it, I tend to be grateful for whatever flashes of true cleverness I can get, and it's a pleasure to report that Despicable Me delivers hundreds, if not thousands, of these flashes. They arrive in the form our protagonist's minions, and are called Minions, and resemble canary-yellow gel capsules with functioning limbs and one or two eyes. They're also just about the cutest, silliest, funniest damned creatures that have ever waddled, bounced, and shrieked through an animated outing (excepting your own children, of course). I liked Despicable Me just fine, but I never loved the movie more than when these miniature slapstick wonders were on-screen; the Minions' boss may be a super-thief, but these goofy little buggers easily steal the show.

Despicable Me, however, concerns the stealing of the moon, a scheme hatched by the nefarious Gru (voiced by Steve Carell) to counter claims that another baddie (Jason Segel's Vector) has usurped his World's Greatest Villain title. The bald, scarf-wearing Gru - who speaks in a mishmash of Russian, Hungarian, and Transylvanian cadences - plans to capture the celestial body with Vector's powerful shrink-ray, and realizes he can only infiltrate his nemesis' compound with the aid of three spunky orphans: Margo, Edith, and Agnes. (With her huge doe eyes, the unicorn-obsessed Agnes has much the same effect as Puss in Boots in the Shrek films - she's almost unspeakably adorable ... for a while.) The movie, as it must, finds Gru's cold, larcenous heart eventually melting under the gaze of these lovable moppets, and their gradual, familial bond is the least interesting element of Despicable Me, despite leading to some snappy wisecracks. ("When we got adopted by a bald guy," voices one of the tots after first entering Gru's suburban haunted house, "I thought this would be more like Annie.")

Yet while you'll have no trouble correctly predicting the movie's narrative arc, much of directors Pierre Coffin's and Chris Renaud's achievement remains happily unpredictable. Thanks for this are due, in large part, to Carell, who wrings laughs even from the script's least inventive lines through his unflappable deadpan and elongated vowels; demeaning Russell Brand's easily confused scientist, Carell's Gru grumbles, "You're so ... old," and you're not sure if you've ever heard a more withering, hysterical insult. Kristen Wiig, Will Arnett, Jack McBrayer, and even Julie Andrews are good for some tart, loopy readings, and Despicable Me's visual gags - among them the robotic chocolate-chip cookies and Gru's setup for his charges' well-being (which includes a candy dish labeled "food" and a spread-out newspaper labeled "poo poo and pee pee") - are oftentimes deliriously random.

And then there are the Minions, whose lunatic actions and helium-voiced squeaking, on two separate occasions, had me crying with laughter. With names like Tim, Mark, and Phil, these sycophantic clowns may be obvious homages to (or steals from) the three-eyes aliens in the Toy Story movies - prone to ooo-ing and aah-ing in unison, they all but exclaim, "The Cla-a-a-aw!!!" - but they exude a nutty charm that's all their own, and lend this daffy entertainment a burst of gaga inspiration. You're no doubt aware that Despicable Me is being shown, in some screens, in 3D. Still, as usual, I didn't feel any loss in instead catching the 2D version; the Minions, and the film's surprisingly robust presentation, delivered plenty of joyously assaultive pop.


Adrien Brody in PredatorsPREDATORS

Now that he's all bulked up, I'd never consider doing it, but man did I want to slap the hell out of Adrien Brody for his participation in Predators. Did too many protein shakes go straight to the man's brain and adversely affect his judgment? With its ethnically balanced cast attempting to evade and destroy monstrous marauders on an alien world, this latest reboot of the unkillable sci-fi/horror franchise - featuring those vicious bipeds that boast dreadlocks, infrared vision, and mouths suggesting vagina dentata - should've been unapologetically dumb, enjoyable action nonsense. Well, the nonsense is unapologetically dumb, all right, but what it isn't is enjoyable. Predators' plotting, down to the "shocking" revelation of its hateful human turncoat, is frustratingly derivative, the blasts of viscera arrive exactly on cue, the CGI effects (surprise!) are distractingly phony, and through it all stands poor, laughably stoic Adrien Brody, who strikes a series of he-man poses and turns his every tortured utterance into pure camp.

I don't think it was misguided to hope that Brody, who performed a similar function in the sadly ignored Splice, would add some much-needed sardonic wit to director Nimród Antal's endeavor. And yes, the actor is facing an uphill struggle, as his abjectly humorless commando is prone to frequent, grim pronouncements such as, "That trap wasn't meant to kill. It was meant to maim." (Every three minutes or so, Brody's Royce delivers another piece of lazy exposition of this sort; instead of artillery, the character may as well have been lugging around a copy of the Predators script.) Unfortunately, though, the Oscar winner is unremittingly dour from his first scene, as if he's actually taking this claptrap seriously, and matters aren't helped by his decision to play his role with that easily parodied husky growl that Christian Bale employs as Batman; is Brody at all aware of how silly he sounds? Predators and its star only lighten up when Laurence Fishburne shows up for an amusing cameo - playing a schizophrenic who's survived "10 seasons" on the movie's hostile planet - and delivers his lines in the exact same bad-ass, baritone rumble that our hero is aiming for (and failing at). The incredulous look on Brody's face when Fishburne walks away - as if to say, "Did that guy just totally steal my character voice?" - is our only hint at an active mind functioning within that newly buff frame.


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